"I'm a big fan of subtlety," says Eleni Mandell, "and I think initially that's why I was so embarrassed by MySpace–because that means you're admitting that you want attention and you want friends. I was like, 'Who would dare admit such a thing!?'" Mandell laughs. "But now I get it. It's wonderful to admit that you're needy and desperate for attention."
Eleni Mandell With Erin McKeown. Tractor Tavern, 5213 Ballard Ave. N.W., 789-3599, www.tractortavern.citysearch.com. $15. 8 p.m. Thurs., Feb. 15.
Listen to a sample of Eleni Mandell's "Salt Truck" from Miracle of Five.
An L.A.-based cult fave who's earned the admiration of fellow musicians like Tom Waits and Jon Brion, Mandell deserves the wider recognition. Since 1998 she's been releasing excellent but underheard art-folk records on which she squares a childhood spent going to musicals and listening to Barry Manilow with an adolescence as an X-worshiping punk rocker. Mandell's new album, Miracle of Five, is her finest yet–a sly, sexy set of ruminations on make-out kings and perfect strangers, and the seemingly endless search for a man you can rely on. Like Sing You Sinners, the recent standards collection by her current tourmate, Erin McKeown, Miracle feels fresh and nostalgic at the same time.
"I think I've always been attracted to the past," Mandell says. "And I kind of write old-fashioned songs. But I don't know why I write the way I write; I don't really know why it sounds old-fashioned. I just love a good story and a good melody and a pretty clarinet solo."
Miracle features stories in abundance; each tune works like a miniatureproduction number: In "Moonglow, Lamp Low," the CD's jazz-ballad opener, Mandell's a silver-screen sylph, while in "Salt Truck," a brisk C&W shuffle, she's a tough chick "driving in the freezing rain," braving "mean black ice." Mandell says that despite her early exposure to Broadway, her rock-scene experience made her reluctant to admit that she liked that aspect of her work. "But then I realized that every great Kinks song is also like a musical number." She's quick to share the credit for Miracle's stylistic breadth with the album's producer, Andy Kaulkin, whose day job is running Anti-Records, home to Waits as well as Neko Case, Nick Cave, and a handful of other kindred spirits.
"Sonically, this is the best record I've ever made," Mandell says. "There are layers, but I feel like they're not overwhelming; it's very subtle, but there's a lot that goes into that subtlety." For example: vibes by X drummer DJ Bonebrake and guitar by Nels Cline of Wilco, who says he joined Mandell and Kaulkin in the studio for a day and simply played whatever came to mind.
"I think in some of the stuff she was after a kind of 1930s vibe," Cline says. "But [Mandell] was very comfortable with a kind of impressionistic take on that. She gave me pretty free rein."
Though she says she appreciates singer-songwriters who can function as one-woman operations, Mandell, a central player in L.A.'s Eastside scene, insists that she gets too much out of the sort of collaboration Cline describes to want to make a record entirely by herself. "I don't always have the right vocabulary" in the studio, she laughs. "I'll say, 'It sounds like I'm in a fishbowl.' I think there's technically a better way to say that."
At the same time, she's learning to embrace the new technology that's facilitating one-woman operations everywhere. "I learned how to use GarageBand," Mandell says proudly of Apple's home-recording software, which she utilized to make demos of the Miracle material before beginning work with Kaulkin. "And I don't hate computers anymore."
Did she once?
"I used to feel like it was sort of evil to use computers to record music," she says. "But then I went broke, and I was like, 'Now I understand why it's so attractive–it's a lot cheaper.'"